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Thursday, 5 May 1994
Page: 284

Senator CAMPBELL (9.45 a.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate—

  (a)notes that:

    (i)on 1 February 1994, Senator Campbell placed a question on notice seeking details about the respective leases for office space at the Casseldon Place building in Melbourne of Projects, Interiors and Asset Services, including details of the commencement dates and space occupied, the net rental, the outgoings per square metre and the value of any leasing incentives,

    (ii)the then Minister for Administrative Services (Senator McMullan), supplied details of the commencement dates and space occupied but withheld information about the rental, the outgoings per square metre and the value of any leasing incentives, and

    (iii)Senator McMullan explained in his answer that these leases are all held by Commonwealth agencies;

  (b)expresses its concern that Senator McMullan went on to assert that notwithstanding that only Commonwealth agencies were involved, he was withholding the requested information because he claimed it was commercial-in-confidence;

  (c)declares that, consistent with the spirit and tenor of numerous Senate resolutions over the years, there is no area of public expenditure and activity of the kind arising here involving one Commonwealth agency leasing property to another, which is not subject to parliamentary accountability and disclosure of information; and

  (d)therefore resolves that there be laid on the table, by the Minister representing the Minister for Administrative Services (Senator McMullan), by not later than 5 p.m. on 5 May 1994, the following documents with respect to the Projects, Interiors and Asset Services leases:

    (i)the effective net rental rates for each lease,

    (ii)the outgoing payable per square metre in the building by the agencies, and

    (iii)the value of any leasing incentives paid to the tenants as part of the lease deal.

I wish to address briefly the arguments about the tabling of these documents. In February, I put on notice a question to the then Minister for Administrative Services, Senator McMullan, regarding some details of property leases in the Casselden Place building in Melbourne. The minister very kindly provided me with an answer recently giving some of the basic details relating to those leases, but he said that the details in relation to the rentals, the outgoings costs and the incentive packages paid to get those government agencies into the Casselden Place building were commercially confidential.

  The information is important because the Casselden Place building in Melbourne is owned by the Commonwealth government, under Australian Estate Management, and the leases pertain to a number of DAS business agencies. I am interested in this matter because a number of those agencies have already received significant subsidies from the federal government under a program called the property adjustment program which was designed, according to government officers at estimates committee briefings recently, to ensure the smooth transition of government departmental agencies under DAS moving from being departmental functions to being commercialised bodies.

  This is a process that the opposition supports. We even support—at least I do, I cannot speak for the opposition—the idea of a property adjustment program to smooth the transition of those departmental functions into commercialised operations. Effectively, a number of those agencies did have uncommercial property holdings. It made it impossible for them to compete fairly if they were lumbered with the poor property decisions made in the past. An adjustment program is an important way of easing that transition.

  However, it is my view that that program should not apply to agencies or government enterprises, the DAS commercial operations, that are entering into new leases. Clearly, in this case, $481,000 was paid to Australian Construction Services to go into Casselden Place. I think that is an abuse of the property adjustment program, based on the minister's and the department's advice on the objects of that program.

  I also think it is quite important that the Australian taxpayer is aware of the dealings between one agency and another, particularly where an agency such as Australian Construction Services is now actively competing in a highly competitive marketplace. It is important that all taxpayers and the parliament know whether or not Australian Construction Services and other commercialised agencies of DAS do compete in a competitively and commercially neutral way. We cannot make a fair assessment about that if we are not sure of the cross-subsidies and potential subsidies that are being received by those commercial arms.

  I can see only one argument to support the commercial-in-confidence response that the minister gave me and that is that in a competitive office leasing market it could be seen to be prejudicial to the government's interests in leasing Casselden Place if the sorts of incentive packages that were being paid to other tenants were revealed. Senator Spindler referred to this yesterday when I talked to him informally about his support for my motion.

  We were informed by Australian Estate Management at this time yesterday that Casselden Place is about 87 per cent leased. That is an exceptionally good performance in a very tight office market. Even if the building was not leased at such a level, I still think the incentive packages could be revealed. As I said to Senator Spindler yesterday, in the property market things like incentive packages, leasing deals and so forth are generally available through the valuation profession. The tax department needs information about these details because they are often subject to capital gains tax; they are not a state secret.

  I think the overwhelming principle involved here is taxpayers' money. We are talking about the expenditure of taxpayers' money and, specifically, about a deal between one Commonwealth agency and another Commonwealth agency. When the Senate is not able to be properly informed about these matters, we are undermining the democracy and the accountability processes that are quite proper in this parliament. I urge the Senate to support my motion.